PRIMAL SCREED/James McCarty Yeager

Whatever You Do,
Don't Call It By Its Right Name

Washington, D.C.

Louisianans can be forgiven for imagining they have the most corrupt politics in the nation. Like most resource-rich, land-poor political groupings from Saudi Arabia to Surinam, Louisiana has always supported a thin crust of moneyed influence (often confused with aristocracy) floating over a hearty gumbo of regular folks. In American popular understanding, possibly only New Jersey (with the Mafia), or West Virginia and Kentucky (with the coal companies), rival Louisiana for the title of most corrupt. Of their nature small poor states like Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming always come close in fact, if not publicity, to the lurid squalor of the more famously politically polluted states.

Any state whose chief city was once saved by a pirate (Jean Lafitte at the Battle of New Orleans in 1813) obviously has a more than checkered past. It's not just the spectacular Governor Huey Long era in the 1930s that cemented Louisiana in the national pantheon, or cellar, of corruption. His cousin Earl did pretty well in the 1950s in the public embarrassment sweepstakes. But the best stories come from Huey's time.

One of them shows the extent to which people would go to protect their good name from the taint of political responsibility under Huey. It seems a boy from the North Louisiana piney woods came down to Baton Rouge looking for work. He had no friends, few skills, no prospects. However, the legislature was in session. Huey's tame legislator from that boy's home district had happened to get slightly indicted, imprisoned, dead or otherwise out of line. An important floor vote was coming up so Huey needed a new one. One of Huey's henchmen picked the boy up in a bar and had him sworn in as a state legislator that afternoon. Next day the boy got a letter from his mom back on the hardscrabble farm asking him how he was doing. He couldn't stand to break his poor mother's heart by confessing he was casting floor votes at Huey's behest, so he wrote home that he had found a good, respectable job playing piano in a whorehouse.

Well, as longtime Texas liberal Sam Hudson memorably observed, "The more things change, the samer they get." For reasons doubtless connected with a history that includes such a view of state legislators, Louisiana had passed a 1998 law that called for random drug tests of, among many, many others, state legislators. In fact, just about anybody having anything to do with the state government would have had to submit to random, not-for-cause drug tests, such as citizen applicants for drivers licenses, college scholarships and welfare benefits. Of course, many Louisiana observers had wanted to complete the concept. Maybe pass something that went a little further. Like, say, including alcohol. Breathalyzers attached to everybody's voting buttons in the state Senate and House, and maybe the governor's bill-signing penholder too.

But on December 28th those stodgy federal judges at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an earlier decision by Federal Judge Eldon Fallon which said the law violated Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search and seizure. According to the Drug Reform Coordination Network, "While this same amendment is routinely suspended in cases where there is a public interest in maintaining mandatory drug tests, in this case two explanations were cited as reasons for upholding the Constitution. First, that there is no evidence of widespread drug use among Louisiana politicians, and second, the law failed to demonstrate how politicians on drugs threaten public safety." (See their newsletter at DRCN's site, for a fuller explanation of the decision. The text of the lower court's decision being upheld is at O'Neill et al v State of Louisiana et al, 61 F.Supp. 2d 485 (E.D.La. 1998). The American Civil Liberties Union's successful suit against the Louisiana law is discussed at .)

The Governor of Louisiana plans to appeal to the Supreme Court, just to keep the farce going a little longer. But DRCN provided some hopeful quotes from Graham Boyd, who spearheads drug policy for the American Civil Liberties Union. Boyd said proponents of the law are wasting their time. There is "zero chance the Supreme Court will hear the case," he said, because of its similarity to Chandler vs. Miller, a 1997 case in which the Court already decided against such a law. Boyd said the doomed effort to enforce the law is a transparently political exercise by Louisiana politicians who want to be able to say, "If it weren't for the courts and the ACLU, the law would work."

A friend wrote plaintively, "Why can't this decision apply to everybody?" Optimist that she is, she wanted the Fourth Amendment guarantees against illegal searches and seizures expanded, not contracted as they have been under the Rehnquist Court. She wanted regular folks, maybe even union members like train engineers and pilots, who are nowadays subjected to job-related drug testing (although usually for-cause) to be free of the pseudo-science of drug testing, whose efficacy is mostly trumpeted by the industry that makes the drug tests.

Well, there's an easier way to do that than electing Democratic House members, senators, and a president this fall so they can start appointing, and confirming, humane federal district, appeals and Supreme Court judges. Although we should probably do that too. No, a simple federal law in the meantime would do. Just declare everybody to be the legal equivalent of a state legislator.

There's some precedent for that. We already declare juveniles and minors to be adults when it suits the purposes of prosecutors seeking convictions. And we have declared corporations to be legally "persons" for a hundred years now, even though they are demonstrably both soulless and incapable of breathing. So it really wouldn't be too far a stretch to declare that all the rights and privileges appertaining to being a state legislator apply to everybody, everywhere, all the time.

Then we could all go off singing the refrain of Steve Goodman's "The Perfect Country & Western Song," which goes, "You don't have to call me 'Darlin',' darlin', when you never even call me by my name."

James McCarty Yeager's great-great-great grandfather and great-great grandfather both lived in Louisiana long enough to get buried there while his grandfather and father were born there and had sense enough to leave.

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